From top to bottom

Thu. December 11, 2014 12:00 AM
by Gregg Shapiro

The Imitation Game (TWC) is one of those movies based on a true story that makes you wonder why it hasn't been told on the big screen in this way before now. However, the timing of the release of the film, coming as it does at a time when horrific interrogation techniques utilized by the CIA are coming to light. In other words, intelligence has nothing to do with intelligence, let alone humanity.

Moving back and forth in time, from 1928 to 1951, The Imitation Game tells the alternately heartbreaking and heart-racing story of brilliant mathematician and Enigma code cracker Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch in an Oscar-worthy performance), a tortured genius utterly lacking in basic social skills (almost the blueprint for Big Bang Theory's Sheldon). Beginning in 1951, following an unfortunate altercation with a gay hustler, Turing, relegated to being a secret hero of World War II for his work that resulted in bringing down the Germans, is about to become the latest victim of Britain's Victorian attitudes toward homosexuals and acts of "gross indecency."

Before that, Turing tells his story to a police detective following his arrest, beginning with his time at Bletchley Radio Manufacturing where he is employed, starting in 1939, under the watchful eyes of Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) and MI6 chief Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong). Teamed up with Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and others, Turing creates a "universal machine," that he describes as an "electrical brain" (a precursor to the modern computer) that will aid him in his code-breaking work. His life at school in the late `20s, where he fell in love with classmate Christopher (Jack Bannon), also provides essential background into how Turing became the man he was. Accept no imitations, The Imitation Game is one the most riveting biopics of the year.

When a character says "everything means something" early in Top Five (Paramount), written/directed by/starring Chris Rock, it's a clue to pay attention. For example, Into The Woods isn't the only Christmas season movie in which Cinderella, a prince and princess make appearances.

After making millions in a series of Hammy The Bear movies, comedian/actor Andre (comedian/actor Rock) is looking for more meaning in his life and career. Of course, he probably won't find it in a pending marriage to Bravo reality TV star Erica (Gabrielle Union). But it was Erica who was there for Andre following his issues with substance abuse and his run-in with the law. He also probably won't find much meaning (or money) in his first serious acting role in Uprize (sic) as a Haitian revolutionary.

He might find it in the following places. During a return visit to the NYC housing project where he grew up, where he runs into his unpleasant father Carl (Ben Vereen), and is feted by his ex-wife (Sherri Shepard) and a circle of friends (including Tracy Morgan and Leslie Jones). A bachelor party, where he gets helpful and hilarious advice from guests/friends Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg and Adam Sandler. An impromptu comedy club appearance where he rediscovers his groove and keeps the crowd in stitches will also have a favorable impact. It's in scenes such as these, with their natural and relaxed humor, that Top Five is a top-notch comedy.

All of this is revealed as New York Times journalist Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), a writer with a variety of pseudonyms, is interviewing Andre. Single mom Chelsea has her own issues, including an elusive DJ boyfriend whose sexual proclivities should have been a clue to her as to who and what he really is. Let's just say you'll never look at tampons and hot sauce in the same way again.

As a director, Rock gets outstanding performances from his cast in both small and large roles. However, Rock might want to update some of his references, say substituting Ellen DeGeneres (easily the most famous lesbian in the world) for k.d. lang (love her, but she's not as famous as she used to be) in a tastefully made lesbian joke. For the record, the Top Five of the title refers to lists of favorite things, in this case, hip-hop acts.

Based on a true story, Foxcatcher (Sony Pictures Classics), begins in the late 1980s as Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) earns a meager $20 for a speaking engagement at an elementary school. He brings his medal, which he earned at the XXIII Olympiad in Los Angeles in 1984, to show the students. Back home, where he eats ramen noodles flavored with hot sauce, his existence seems fairly lonely. Close to his older brother, college wrestling coach Dave (Mark Ruffalo), he comes to campus to work out with him on a regular basis.

Right from the start, the presence of wrestlers gives Foxcatcher a vaguely homoerotic quality. The brutal ballet that occurs on the wrestling mat, when Mark is training with Dave or other wrestlers, or competing, is almost as arousing as it is assaultive. Basically a walking head injury with cauliflower ears, Mark is wooed by wealthy social misfit and patriot John DuPont (Steve Carell in a prosthetic nose. No, really!). He's flown first class and then delivered by helicopter to DuPont's estate on the outskirts of Valley Forge. The practice facilities there are the finest money can buy, if the social interaction is awkward and uncomfortable.

John, whose only childhood best friend was purchased for him by his ancient equestrian mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), blossoms in Mark's presence, and vice versa. Mark gets into top form so that he can earn the medals that mean so much to him and his benefactor. But it doesn't take long before things get ugly. DuPont drinks too much and is a cokehead. Mark soon follows suit. Before you know it, John tells Mark he's an "ungrateful ape." Dave (and his wife and kids) are also lured into DuPont's warped web, and in case you missed the news story, that also ends badly.

Foxcatcher feels less accomplished than Miller's feature film directorial debut Capote, which was also a mood piece that better maintained the mood. If spending more than two hours with a brooding Channing Tatum in a singlet and a beakier and geekier Steve Carell is your idea of entertainment, then definitely see Foxcatcher. If not, there's no reason to get caught up in the movie.